April 2, 2013

I Don't Think It's Time for a "New Nicaea"

Mark Etling wrote a thought provoking piece posted on NCR on Sunday: "Time to reunite all Catholics with a new Nicaea."

My initial reaction was quite positive, so I started to write a post for this blog describing what I liked about it. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that this might actually be, in some ways, a terrible idea. So I scrapped that post.

Etling notes that "Catholics are deeply divided over issues of theology, authority, scriptural interpretation, tradition and canon law," which is obvious enough to most of us.

He then writes,
Developments in archeology, biblical exegesis, historical research, psychology and other disciplines make me wonder whether the Nicene Creed remains sufficiently elastic to embody the truths of Christianity as they—and the Christians who recite it—have evolved.
This is a good point. And toward the end of his article he makes a "new Nicene Creed" on of his proposed agenda items. But why would anyone think that a new creed would promote unity? Much of what Etling suggests would create more division, not less. The same goes for his suggestion that the canon of scripture should be "expanded." But it seems to me that the cost of doing that, in terms of lost common ground with other denominations, would far outweigh any benefits. I'm quite familiar with the early Christian literature Etling is talking about, and I can't even think of what those benefits are.

I don't see how either of these suggestions would achieve the kind of unity that Etling says they would. (I get the feeling he doesn't spend a lot of time listening to conservatives or traditionalists!)

On the other hand, some of his ideas are quite good. A number of his agenda items could actually be implemented without a council. An "up-to-date" affirmation of God—one that takes into account our "new and rapidly changing understanding of the universe, our ever-deepening awareness of the beliefs about God in other religious traditions, [and] the deeply troubling questions about God's willingness and ability to prevent both moral and natural evils"—and a "broader understanding of revelation," have already been articulated in many brilliant works of theology written over the past several decades. Encouraging the best and the brightest theological minds—instead of silencing them and destroying their careers—would be a terrific start to making these a reality.

One of Etling's ideas that I definitely do agree with his the need for a "broader understanding of salvation":
Nicene orthodoxy focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the defining soteriological events. Implicit in this assertion was the belief that humanity needed to be, and was, saved from sin through the cross and Resurrection. But recent scholarship has shown us that salvation from sin through death and Resurrection was not the only soteriological paradigm among the earliest Christians. Likewise, contemporary existentialist philosophy and clinical psychology have led to the development of a model of personal wholeness that focuses on self-knowledge through therapy and introspection as the key to mental health and wellness. Based on these advances, a broadening of our understanding of salvation to include the teachings of Jesus on the necessity of overcoming ignorance of self should be included to expand our understanding of salvation.
This speaks to the question of just what the church—and religion in general, for that matter—is really for. In the church, traditionally, "salvation" has been understood as the primary end of the Christian faith. At some point "salvation" was reduced to "going to heaven and avoiding hell," and the purpose of religion was largely reduced to what Brian McLaren describes as "a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin."1

I think this "soul-sorting" idea has lost its purchase on the hearts and minds of many Christians; it just doesn't seem credible—it isn't credible—and countless people who were never persuaded of any other reason to remain in the church have simply shrugged it off and dropped out.

But again, I think this is something that could be accomplished by letting theologians do their job, and getting better people into the priesthood—which would mean, at the very least, not restricting it exclusively to celibate men! (Of course this would be divisive, but I don't subscribe to the view that we should value unity over everything else, especially questions of basic justice.)

Despite my ambivalence about some of his ideas, I definitely think Etling has written a thought-provoking article and highly recommend giving it a read.


1. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 35.

March 29, 2013

Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

Could Jesus have survived the crucifixion? Most people would certainly say "no," but, as James McGrath points out in his book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, claims that he did survive do crop up from time to time.

A believer might be content to take the Bible's word for it, but a historian has to consider the evidence.

McGrath points out that it was possible to survive crucifixion. He writes of the Jewish historian Josephus,
At one point he came across some of his friends who had been captured by the Romans and were in the process of being crucified. He petitioned for them to be taken down from their crosses, and one of them managed to survive (Life of Flavius Josephus 75.420-421). It was therefore possible to survive crucifixion at least in cases where the crucified individual was taken down relatively quickly from the cross.
He says that others have suggested that the vinegar given to Jesus might have been a drug meant to knock Jesus out, making it look like he was dead, so that he might be taken down and later revived. In addition, he says, the story of the Roman soldier piercing Jesus's side might have been created to counter the claim that Jesus didn't actually die.

McGrath points out, though, that "the Romans were quite adept at execution, and it seems unlikely that friends of Jesus would have been able to give him a drug to cause him to appear dead, thereby outwitting the Romans." If that was even possible, it probably would have been tried numerous times, and there would be some mention of it in texts from that era.

Furthermore, he says, "Jesus’ followers were willing to give their lives in later years for their conviction that Jesus had not simply survived death, but had been raised from death and seated at God’s right hand." That they were willing to die for this belief doesn't mean the belief was correct, but it strongly suggests they actually believed it. And they didn't just believe it, they made it a central part of their message. This, he points out, is "crucially important" evidence:
Most people in that time would have assumed that crucifixion by the Romans was a clear indication that someone was not the Davidic Messiah. It is the closest thing one can imagine to an automatic disqualification. Had Jesus survived the Romans’ attempt to execute him, that would surely have become a centerpiece of Christian proclamation.
The Burial of Jesus is a good read (and a short one, too; I downloaded it the other day and was finished in less than an hour and a half). I do recommend it.

February 20, 2013

My Latest Heresy

I read the first few chapters of Garry Wills' Why Priests? last night. I chuckled a bit when I read about a "heresy" I didn't realize I was guilty of (to add the many others I'm very much aware of), namely that of the Stercoranists. These dangerous heretics asserted that the bread and wine of the Eucharist, after being ingested, were subsequently digested and then excreted. You know, like food.

So, if they're not digested (and excreted), then exactly what does happen to them?

Well, that's one of those questions you're just not supposed to ask, apparently.

It's best not to think about it.

February 18, 2013

The Hereafter

If you had asked me when I was a child what happens to us when we die, I probably would have said, "We go to heaven." On a superficial level I probably believed that. I imagine I believed that I believed that.

But I have some very vivid memories, from the time I was eight until I was into my late teens, of lying awake at night, unable to sleep, terrified of ceasing to exist after I died. Thoughts of the afterlife were of no comfort. I don't even remember having such thoughts. Death meant annihilation. Looking back now, this is what I really believed, and I lost a lot of sleep over it.

By the time I went to university I was, for all intents and purposes, an agnostic. I was also suffering through a period of depression that began in high school and didn't let up until halfway through my second year. That was when, very early one Saturday morning in January, I had an insight into something that happened when I was four years old, and had haunted me ever since. I'm not going to go into any detail about what it was—it's not at all relevant to this post—but suffice it to say, I was finally able to forgive someone for saying something that was really quite damaging to me, and for which I had been harbouring an almost-conscious resentment for the better part of twenty years (though, looking back, it was probably perfectly innocuous from his perspective).

My mind started racing and I had what I soon started calling, ignorantly but not entirely inappropriately, my "Zen experience." Actually, it wasn't a single experience. Over the rest of the weekend I had over a dozen of them. They were relatively brief, always came unexpectedly, and at first I found them quite terrifying. I thought I was losing my mind. But the insights I was having made too much sense, they were so inarguably true, that I was soon able to embrace the experiences when they came.

The most salient insight that occurred to me I later recognized as what the Buddhist tradition calls pratitya samutpada, which is translated in a number of different ways (e.g., "conditioned arising," or "dependent origination," among many others).

But accompanying it was something else, something not obviously related to that: I "knew" that death is an illusion; that is, it is not the end that I had previously imagined it to be; it does not entail the annhilation I had lain awake dreading as a child, but had, after several years of mind-numbing depression, rather calmly accepted as our inevitable fate.

I couldn't account for this "knowledge" (which is why I put it in quotation marks: I have no way of justifying it epistemologically). And I had no insight into what came next. But I was certain that it wasn't nothing.

And for a long time after that, I was content to leave it that: whatever came next was necessarily unknown. We could speculate; we could imagine an eternal heaven and hell, a temporary sojourn in purgatory, a cycle of birth and rebirth, or an existence as ghosts haunting the future owners of our homes. But these were, I thought, necessarily speculations, and nothing more than that. Given that we couldn't know (or even be reasonable confident) that one was more likely than another, it was best to remain agnostic on the subject of what comes next.

Basically I agreed with Martin Luther's approach to the matter, as described here by Marcus Borg:
Luther expressed our not-knowing about the details of the afterlife with a particularly apt analogy: we can know as much about life beyond death as a fetus traveling down the birth canal and about to be born can know about the world it is about to enter. How much is that? Nothing. Yet the analogy affirms that there is something at the end of the journey.1
When I first read this years ago it made a lot of sense to me. But I've done some reading over the past few years that has convinced me that we are not necessarily as in-the-dark as I previously imagined.

But that will be the subject of an upcoming post. Maybe more than one.


1. Borg, The God We Never Knew, 175. Borg does not say where in Luther's writings this can be found.

February 17, 2013

Who Picks the Pope

I have no intention of saying much on this blog about the upcoming conclave to elect the next pope, but I found a link to this article by John L. Allen, Jr., dated a few days before Ratzinger became pope, in a post on one of my old blogs. I thought this was an interesting bit:
[Ratzinger] was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected pope, and this was his response: "I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. ... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."

Then the clincher: "There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked."

January 25, 2013

Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans is a writer I've recently started to take an interest in. I read about her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, some time ago, and put it on my "to read" list, but it's a long list and I haven't gotten around to it yet. But I've visited her blog a few times, and I really like what I've been reading. (That's not something I can say about a lot of Evangelicals!)

Her post yesterday, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart," was the best one I've read so far (today's follow-up: also good). She talks about the monstrous consequences of divorcing emotions from theology:
So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level. I suspect this is why this new breed of rigid Calvinism that follows the “five points” to their most logical conclusion, without regard to the moral implications of them, has flourished in the past twenty years. (I heard a theology professor explain the other day that he had no problem whatsoever with God orchestrating evil acts to accomplish God’s will, for that is what is required for God to be fully sovereign! When asked if this does not make God something of a monster, he responded that it didn’t matter; God is God—end of story.)
The Calvinist belief in the "sovereignty" of God—often understood to mean that God controls absolutely everything that happens, wearing the universe like a puppet—is probably motivated by a desire to glorify God, to ensure that God is not thought to be less than what God is. The irony is that it easily turns God into a monster, a sad fact that is well illustrated by a quote from John Piper that serves as an epigraph to Evans's post. She only quotes part of what Piper said; I'll quote a little bit more:
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.

So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.

If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
Yes, you read that right: if you were to die in a suicide bombing, it would be because God willed it, and it would be just and right and good.

If that's the case, what could it possibly mean to say that "God is love"? (1 John 4.8, 16)

(I hope the Rachel Held Evanses of the Evangelical world become more influential than the John Pipers.)

January 20, 2013

Water into Wine: John 2.1-11

Today we read John 2.1-11, the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns six large jars of water into wine.

I have to admit, this is not a story I've given much thought to in the past. It's not simply that it's unbelievable,1 because there are other stories in the Gospels that are also unbelievable, but I have still found meaning in them. But this miracle story has always struck me as a little bit frivolous, like it's a silly party trick.

I've changed my mind about that, though, and the key is understanding the symbolism of the jars.

The stone jars, we're told, were "for the Jewish rites of purification" (v.6). They were made of stone because stone would not become ritually contaminated or impure. Normally a family would only have one such jar, but here there are six.

Some scholars claim that the reason for this is to give Jesus a large quantity of water to work with. "This exaggeration," says one, "owes to the narrator’s desire to represent a miracle of transformation of super proportions in this story."2 Another says, "the great quantity they contained," was meant to reflect "the fullness of Christ’s grace."3 Perhaps.

Some scholars, on the other hand, have suggested that the number six is meant to be understood symbolically. Andrew Lincoln, for example, writes, "The number six may well...represent the imperfection of insufficiency of the old order of Judaism."4 The transformation of the water into wine represents the coming of the new order represented by Jesus:
In the Jewish Scriptures wine in abundance signifies the salvation of the end time—'The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when...the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,...they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine' (Amos 9:13–14; cf. also Isa. 25:6; Jer. 31:12; Joel 3:18)...In addition, wine stands for life and joy (cf. Ps. 104:15; Eccl. 10:19; Sir. 31:27–8; 40:20). In inaugurating the new order, Jesus provides life that is to be enjoyed.5
Such a reading inevitably brings up the problem of anti-Judaism in the Fourth Gospel, which is obviously a matter of concern. But I would suggest that this text can be understood as conveying something that is actually faithful to the transformation that Jesus sought to bring about through his ministry.

This Gospel's frequent portrayal of "the Jews" as Jesus's opponents is obviously problematic, and not something Jesus himself would have recognized. But we shouldn't forget that, during his actual lifetime, Jesus was often in conflict with some of his fellow Jews, specifically about their way of being Jewish.

Often the point of contention was the purity code of the Torah. Jesus had little time for the purity code, particularly when following it meant victimizing others. The concern for purity, for recognizing distinctions between "clean" and "unclean," belongs to a relatively immature (but very common) stage of religious development. It creates binary oppositions between classes of people, generally favouring one side to the detriment of the other.

Jesus sought to overcome this by promoting an ethic that valued compassion over purity, but the defenders of the purity system—people who benefitted from being in the favoured side of each binary—predictably resisted. His opponents were mostly Jewish, yes—but the kind of thinking he opposed was (and is) found in every religion, including our own.

The transformation of water into wine represents the transformation we are undergoing, and have always been undergoing: the growth beyond the divisive ways of thinking that denigrate large segments of humanity in support of one favoured class, people who resist the new order represented by Jesus, and the belief that "life...is to be enjoyed."


1. That this is not an historical event would be affirmed by "virtually all mainstream scholars," according to Marcus J. Borg (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, 57).  While many scholars would dismiss it out of hand simply for being a "miracle," there are plenty of reasons someone who is open to the possibility of miracles might nevertheless arrive at the same judgment. The most extensive argument I've yet come across is from John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.934-950. [Back]

2. Ernst Haenchen, John (Hermeneia), 1.173. [Back]

3. George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC), 35. [Back]

4. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (BNTC), 129.  Raymond Brown dismissed the attempt to find symbolism in the number six as "farfetched" (The Gospel According to John [AYB], 1.100), but he didn't elaborate. [Back]

5. Lincoln, 129. [Back]